1 Lynn Swann and John Stallworth
Although differing in style—Swann was smooth and acrobatic; Stallworth big, fast and physical—both were playmakers who made their marks in the postseason. In 16 career playoff games Swann scored nine touchdowns and averaged 18.9 yards on 48 receptions; playing in one more postseason game, Stallworth had 12 TDs and an 18.5-yard average on 57 catches. The two began their careers with Pittsburgh in 1974, won four Super Bowls and landed in the Hall of Fame. Dick Hoak, Steelers running backs coach from '72 through 2006: "If we'd thrown the ball like these teams today, I don't know how many passes those two guys would have caught. They never lost their focus. I don't remember them dropping a big pass that meant something."
2 Jerry Rice and John Taylor
Rice holds every major career receiving record, and Taylor consistently came up with big catches—most notably the touchdown on a 10-yard pass from Joe Montana with 34 seconds to play that gave the Niners a 20--16 victory over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. The pair not only had excellent hands and good speed, but they also were physical run blockers. Like Swann and Stallworth they separated themselves from other tandems by their postseason success, namely three Super Bowl wins. Jerry Gray, Redskins secondary coach and former NFL cornerback: "They worked off each other. They were great route runners, and the [West Coast] system fit them perfectly. It wasn't so much that the 49ers were throwing 40-yard passes; Rice and Taylor were turning short passes into 40-yard gains."
3 Cris Carter and Randy Moss
They never made it to the Super Bowl, but there is no denying their dominance. During their four seasons together Carter and Moss combined for 645 catches, 9,793 yards and 93 touchdowns. That's 13 more TDs than Rice and Taylor had in their first four seasons together and 56 more than Swann and Stallworth. The Minnesota pair complemented each other perfectly in that Moss stretched the field with his speed and Carter worked the underneath routes with his Velcro-like hands. Contributing to their effectiveness was No. 3 receiver Jake Reed, a big, physical threat himself. Sam Madison, Giants defensive back: "Nobody knew how to play them. It didn't matter where the ball was thrown, [Carter or Moss] was definitely going to get it."
4 Mark Duper and Mark Clayton
What this diminutive twosome lacked in size, they made up for with speed and playmaking ability, excelling in an offense in which the run was an afterthought. Duper and Clayton, both 5'9", were Dan Marino's favorite targets when he threw a record 48 touchdown passes in 1984, and from '84 through '92 they averaged a combined 112 catches and 1,822 yards per season. Lionel Washington, Packers cornerbacks coach and former NFL corner: "That was speed and more speed. A lot of things downfield."
November 24, 2008
5 Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt
It was breathtaking to watch these two perform in the Greatest Show on Turf, under passing-game guru Mike Martz. Bruce and Holt were fast, precise, smart and sure-handed, combining for 613 catches, 9,905 yards and 57 scores in their first four seasons together. Sharing the ball not only with each other but also with All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk, Bruce and Holt's selfless approach to the game was an added bonus. Lovie Smith, Bears coach and former Rams defensive coordinator: "They had almost a defensive [player's] mentality, as far as playing hard every down. They practiced their trade every day like they were rookies just trying to make the club."
6 Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson
They spent only three seasons together, but what a three years! Jefferson surpassed 1,000 yards and had at least 10 touchdowns in each of those seasons; future Hall of Famer Joiner, who topped 1,000 yards twice, was so consistent that he was sometimes lost in the glare of Jefferson's spectacular leaping grabs. The two were made even more effective by the presence of tight end Kellen Winslow. Al Saunders, longtime NFL offensive coordinator: "It was the right place at the right time. They had great talent for what [the Chargers] were doing, an offense that was very explosive and pass-oriented."
7 Elroy Hirsch and Tom Fears
They were key elements of an offense that revolutionized the forward pass—Fears a precise route runner, Hirsch the downfield threat. In 1950 Fears set an NFL season record with 84 catches, including 18 in one game against the Packers. The next year Crazy Legs Hirsch set the league record for receiving yards (1,495 yards) and led all players with 17 touchdowns. Both were voted into the Hall of Fame. Joe Horrigan, Hall historian: "The numbers they put up when running was the name of the game were significant. They were really ahead of their time ... an island unto themselves."
8 Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell
This is an often overlooked pairing that flourished despite not having an elite quarterback or a pass-first offense. Consider the combined stats for their first four years together: 671 catches, 9,462 yards and 44 TDs. In four of their six seasons they each surpassed 1,000 receiving yards. Deon Grant, Seahawks safety: "Jimmy Smith is probably the best route runner I ever saw. You never could tell what he was doing. McCardell was a student of the game who ran good routes, had good hands and had speed to get where he needed to get to."
9 Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne
Their heydays are over, but Harrison and Wayne terrorized opponents with Peyton Manning pitching the ball to them. They could run any route effectively, catch any pass in traffic and were so competitive that success seemed to bring relief instead of enjoyment, at least in the case of the reserved Harrison. Dick LeBeau, Steelers defensive coordinator: "A lot has to do with the quarterback, but they were an explosive duo."
10 Andre Reed and James Lofton
Buffalo was the third stop in Lofton's career, but he made it memorable with the opportunity to team with Reed. With Hall-of-Famer-to-be Jim Kelly delivering the ball and running back Thurman Thomas keeping defenses honest, Lofton stretched the field with his speed and Reed worked the underneath routes. Their numbers were not overwhelming, but it's hard to remember them not making big plays in a big game. Lionel Washington: "Reed had strength and quickness at the line of scrimmage. Lofton had it all—a physical player when he needed to be, finesse when he needed to be. He knew the tricks of the game."
Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie, Browns, 1946--52; Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff, Raiders, 1972--78; Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper, Cowboys, 1991--94; Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, Broncos, 1995--2003.
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